In Nigeria, "vagabonds" are those whose existence is literally outlawed: the poor, the queer, the drivers and dancers, the abused and displaced and vulnerable. Blending unvarnished realism with myth and fantasy, this debut novel traces characters for whom life itself is a form of resistance. Whether running from danger, meeting with secret lovers, finding their identities, or vanquishing their demons, these characters confront and support one another, before converging one night for a once-in-a-lifetime gathering.
Some of these stories were first published individually, and as standalones they are dazzling, haunting, angular and funny. There is a freedom to Osunde’s borderless writing, which captures the unruliness of a twenty-first-century city while exposing the hypocrisies of its rulers, yet still finds amid the chaos possibilities for resistance. Taken as a whole, however, Vagabonds! can seem involuted. In part this is because, while the short story so often turns on something metaphysical, an unfathomable mystery only hinted at (see Joy Williams, for example, a master of the form), the expansiveness of the novel demands greater perspective. By presenting a series of bundled tales, Osunde is able to convey a metropolis heaving with parallel lives, but she loses intellectual coherence and the meaning of the novel’s metaphysics remains obscure. Are the gods tyrants or liberators? Is godliness something everyone should aspire to, or are we simply worshipping the wrong gods? ... It is a poignant finale, but the author’s decision to equip ordinary people with supernatural capabilities feels less like a sleight of hand than a dodge, undermining the radicalism of her vision by imagining a world in which power has simply been transferred from one realm to another. Osunde has said that she wants Vagabonds! to act as a road map, helping the dispossessed to change the real world. But the novel’s spectacular coup de théâtre leaves the reader wondering whether challenges to power can only be imagined as acts of magic.
Ms. Osunde discusses the draconian same-sex marriage prohibition bill passed in Nigeria in 2014, which even criminalizes public displays of affection, and her stories, increasingly animated by righteous anger, turn to covert relationships and the goings-on in secret gay nightclubs. A note of empowerment appears, turning this vitally written miscellany into a kind of rallying cry. It is in the hidden margins of a corrupt metropolis, the stories affirm, that truth and bravery are to be found.
Throughout, a 'monitoring spirit' named Tatafo, a former assistant of Èkó’s, serves as the novel’s M.C. of sorts, teeing up stories, providing context, introducing themes. If sometimes those sections feel a bit forced, a way to glue together the components of a short story collection into a single narrative, it’s a testament to how absorbing the stories are on their own. Together, they give the sense of an unveiling, culminating in a citywide coming-out party that manages to be at once apocalyptic and bewildering, and even joyous.